Some people have no qualms about disclosing intimate details about their life – and this is without the cajoling affects of alcohol. As soon as people hear I’m in the psychology field, one of two things will happen: They’ll either shut tight like a clam and make sure they don’t say anything I will “analyze,” or they’ll pour their life out to me (or tell me about a strange recurring dream they have). Those, like me, who are on the receiving end of this uninhibited biography may raise a scandalous eyebrow, squirm uncomfortably, lap up the juicy gossip like warm milk, or secretly admire the self-disclosurer’s courage. One thing remains clear, however. Self-disclosure isn’t for the faint-hearted, whether you’re the one pouring your heart out or the one receiving its overflowing contents.
In an effort to uncover who people are likely to self-disclose and the traits that differentiate those who spill the beans and those who don’t, we released two self-disclosure tests – one that assesses general self-disclosure with family, friends, and strangers, and one that evaluates self-disclosure in intimate relationships. Our analyses indicate that people are more likely to self-disclosure their thoughts and feelings with their partner, and more likely to keep tight-lipped with – obviously – strangers.
Gender comparisons indicate that women are more comfortable opening up to their family (score of 50 for women, 46 for men, on a scale from 0 to 100) and to their partner (68 for women, 65 for men), and are much more comfortable than men showing this type of vulnerability in general (71 vs. 64). Age differences reveal that older age groups feel more at ease than younger age groups opening up to their family (52 vs. 46), partners (68 vs.63), and even friends (55 vs. 50).
Now, self-disclosure is understandably difficult, because we put a great deal on the line when we do so. I would classify myself (as would everyone who knows me), as a person who keeps things close to the chest. If I do disclose to someone, it absolutely has to be a person I’ve known for quite some time and who I trust wholeheartedly. The thing is, when we self-disclose, we expose ourselves fully – our fears, our faults, our feelings. There is an immense amount of vulnerability involved. This means that those of us who choose to self-disclose to others not only need to be able to trust them, but we also have to be comfortable putting our heart and ego on the line, because there is always the potential that what we reveal will result in conflict, criticism, and even total rejection. So it’s no wonder that so many of us wait months and years before we open up to someone – if at all.
Aside from trust and a comfort with vulnerability, rejection, and conflict, our research shows that people who self-disclose are also more likely to have high self-esteem, to be very assertive and, perhaps not surprisingly, to be close to the people they open up to. In addition, our data from Queendom also reveals that those who are low on self-disclosure are more likely to be unsatisfied with their relationships. So you know all those cheesy romance novels and heartfelt family flics where people express their feelings to each other and suddenly start bonding? They’re actually onto something.
Here’s one caveat though: like all good things, moderation is best, even with self-disclosure. Self-disclosure does have its benefits, in that it creates closeness and builds trust, but it might not be for everyone. Some couples, friends, and families feel it’s best to leave certain things unsaid, and that’s probably true in some circumstances – not that I’m condoning lying. But in the end, self-disclosing is a delicate dance between two people. Both need to be open to it in order for it to provide any benefit to the relationship.
Here are some tips that can help people feel more comfortable with self-disclosure:
Take it step by step.
No one says you have to jump right in and talk about that time in kindergarten when you peed your pants. Start off small – offer your opinion on something, talk about an interesting event that happened at work, etc. When you’re comfortable enough with someone, you can work your way up to more personal matters.
Don’t put a mask on.
When it comes to self-disclosure, it means revealing both the good and the bad; showing your true self, faults and all. If you’re only revealing your stellar side to others (as amazing as it may be), you’re not giving them a chance to get to know the real you. Don’t be afraid to be yourself! Wouldn’t you prefer that people love you for who you really are?
Pick a good time and place.
Self-disclosure, especially when it involves delicate issues, can’t be done willy-nilly. For instance, if you want to talk to your partner about the recent lack of physical intimacy in your relationship, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to bring it up in a public place, or after he/she has had a bad day. Similarly, potentially controversial announcements (like getting divorced or quitting your lucrative accounting job to become a writer of fantasy novels), should not be done during a big family gathering, like weddings or holiday dinners.
Stop the stereotypes.
Some men feel that talking about emotions or revealing a softer side is, well, a little feminine. Unfortunately, while they may be saving their pride and sense of masculinity by not opening up, both their emotional and physical health will feel the impact of keeping everything inside. Self-disclosure has been shown to be a good stress reliever – for both genders.